By Scott Smith and Dr. Eoin O’Driscoll
The pandemic has businesses reeling and trying to balance the fear of lost revenue with the question at the heart of their reopening plans: How do we protect the safety of workers from the invisible threat of COVID-19? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has provided guidelines, but for most organizations they do little to calm the fears.
There needs to be a focus on how businesses can transition these guidelines into actions that protect the health and safety, legal, and economic implications of their business and employees — and it starts by bringing facility management to the boardroom to discuss with company executives not how they’re heating the building, but how they’re going to save lives.
Until now, many facility managers have been working as reactionary maintenance departments, tasked with driving energy efficiency. The development of the LEED green building certification system in the early 1990s to the implementation of Title 24 for the State of California have cemented that building design and operations be focused on green or sustainable facilities. While these criteria were necessary for the overall society, they have left us challenged to contemplate how we can pivot to threats like airborne contaminants such as COVID-19.
But, there are ways businesses can manage this balancing act, and one area of focus is real-time data and analytics to guide highly engineered systems to reduce the risk of COVID.
Using Data To Address HVAC Systems
One method is switching to 100% outside air. By reducing the recirculation of air, the hope is to simultaneously reduce the spread of the virus through HVAC systems. This does have potential, but a lot of buildings were not designed for this outside air exchange rate.
So, how do we take facilities in hot or humid climates and switch them to 100% outside air and still maintain climate control? Having the tools to capture historical data, facility management can model and use machine learning to predict the impact and capacity to meet this new goal. They also need this data to ensure systems are operating at optimal capacity to reduce faults and unplanned outages.
Traditionally, facilities have measured air quality at a relatively low threshold, looking at just CO2. COVID-19 has forced a switch to a modern approach like the RESET Air Standard that includes new measures such as PM2.5, TVOC, CO2, temperature and humidity. While this standard does not specifically account for virus disbursement, it will give us new data to model and help us understand a level of air quality that may reduce our risk and measure the impact of changes like 100% outside air.
But How Can Facilities Monitor Social Distancing?
Measuring temperature, oxygen levels, and the physical location of people is another key aspect. Facility management need information on people’s physical location in relation to others to determine if there is social distancing, and may require a device that can track temperature, heart rate and oxygen saturation level to provide insight into unnoticeable symptoms.
We see this effort already starting with mobile application tracking in locations within India and China. There was even data collected from cellphones for artificial intelligence models by Blue Dot for modeling and predicting the spread of the pandemic. There are, of course, technical issues and privacy issues that may need to be addressed, but can we turn an Apple Watch or a Fitbit into a prevention tool?
Alternate options are LiDAR systems, thermal imaging, and even drones as ways to measure the patterns of behavior and compliance. These new monitoring solutions also provide new data and explain how we capture this data for modeling and predictive analytics.
The Everchanging Work Environment
Many corporate offices were built using large open floor plans like cubicle farms, which are in direct conflict with social distancing. Facility managers need to reconfigure space utilization, which will also have an impact on the performance of engineered systems like HVAC. Again, data will help us understand our capacity as well as our operation.
Alternatively, companies like Twitter are allowing some, if not all of their workforce to remain in a work-from-home environment on a regular basis as these empty buildings will operate differently than their design specifications due to the decrease in demand.
If you remove COVID-19 as the justification and look at the digital technology that the industry has used for decades in tracking products through manufacturing, and monitoring queues of people for improved staffing and customer experience, these methods are not new. Rather, facility managers will be pivoting years of experience into the hands of an unfamiliar solution for a new problem.
Smith is the Industry Principal for Facilities and Data Centers at OSIsoft where he focuses on deriving digital value across universities, data centers, and manufacturing, pharmaceutical, and U.S. Federal Government facilities. He collaborates with facility teams to integrate the company’s PI System, which enables a data infrastructure to provide visibility into assets, and empowers real-time data-driven decision making. His career has focused on how operational and IT data can drive change.
Dr. O’Driscoll’s specific areas of expertise are energy management, building automation optimization, and smart building implementations. A licensed Professional Engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia and an AEE Certified Energy Manager, Dr. O’Driscoll is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland with a Mechanical Engineering PhD, a Bachelor of Science (Engineering with Management), and a Post Graduate Diploma (Statistics). He has developed and implemented facility optimization projects to enhance energy performance and create resilient critical environments. He is currently authoring a book for Elsevier Publishing titled “Smart & Resilient Buildings: A Data-Driven Future”.
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